Sen. Don Samuelson said he asked if there could be a more gentle phase-out at Potlatch versus a quick mill closing once a sales agreement is signed.
Samuelson, DFL-Brainerd, drove up from St. Paul to attend a community meeting Tuesday regarding the Potlatch closure. It was the first time the senator was able to speak at a community gathering since the mill's closing announcement.
Samuelson met with Potlatch and Sappi Limited representatives several times since the announcement to discuss what the mill can make and what the non-compete clause means. Samuelson met with L. Pendleton Siegel, Potlatch chairman, in St. Paul Tuesday morning.
Siegel reassured Samuelson Potlatch is willing to market the mill for a reasonable sale price.
Samuelson compared the Potlatch efforts to the Hennepin Paper Co. closing in Little Falls where the mill owners walked away leaving unpaid debts in the community and left the plant to decay. Now Samuelson said there is a $5 million price tag on a cleanup effort to keep the mill from falling into the river, creating a bigger environmental disaster.
The senator said Potlatch has been a good corporate citizen and paid good wages.
"I believe they are helping through the process," he said, noting Potlatch thinks there are two or three products that may be allowable within the confines of the non-compete clause. And Samuelson said he is continuing to meet with the attorney general once or twice a week regarding the sales agreement, the non-compete clause and making sure federal and state laws are met. He reported the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency confirmed existing permits will be automatically turned over to a new company should a buyer be found.
Keeping the mill as a paper plant is what Samuelson hopes is a first priority. He said models evaluating such job losses use a multiplier of at least three for each employee when translating the effect on the community, which means the numbers could be equaled in the thousands.
From employees, Samuelson said the questions he fielded have often revolved around severance packages, 401(k) accounts and unemployment benefits.
"Employees are understandably nervous about those things," he said.
In response to concerns about insurance benefits, Samuelson said at this point the Legislature is not willing to waive the four-month waiting time for Minnesota Care.
Samuelson met with state agencies and the attorney general after learning the mill was going to shut down. He said the first effort was trying to make sure state resources were ready to cover needs. Samuelson received calls noting Burlington Northern Railroad employees did not get the help Potlatch workers are receiving. He said the difference is such programs did not exist in those days and the current effort is an improvement.
Samuelson told meeting participants he is willing to help in any way.
After hearing reports from other communities about other plant closures, Samuelson said the news hit home with Potlatch's announcement in March.
"All of a sudden we are hit with it."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.